Persistence is an art

One reader wins the game of customer service

I often hear from people who are so frustrated by an attempt to work out a problem with a big company that they are left feeling victimized and helpless. Often, people simply give up, sacrificing their own (or their company's) hard-earned money rather than visit the feeling of helplessness that comes from navigating a bureaucracy.

I know from long experience that most of these problems can be worked out given a little time and a lot of patience. But I realized recently -- while watching my son play with his Christmas presents -- that getting through customer service is a lot like a computer game: You encounter allies and opponents along the way -- and you have to learn to recognize which is which; the goal is always to get to the next level; and the solution comes only after a great deal of persistence, skill, and determination. The weapons in this game are calm, patience, and the phrase "May I speak to your supervisor?"

Customer service is almost always tiered. So as you get passed up the line (in response to that key phrase), you increasingly encounter people who have more power and tools to solve your problem. And as you move up the levels, you get closer to winning.

Mark wrote recently to share his recent success at this game. I think his letter illustrates just how well you can do at this game -- if you keep your cool and play well.

"I didn't want to have a Gripe," he writes, "I do. But, like A Christmas Carol it has a happy ending."

"Those of us with cell service from Qwest are learning that the company's current service agreement with Sprint is ending. This means they won't be using Sprint towers to handle their service. Not only are they moving to Verizon, it appears they are getting out of the cellular service business altogether in February, handling only billing for Verizon from then on. They are doing a number of things right. For example, Verizon is offering free replacement phones of the type you had as a Qwest customer, even if that phone is extra-cost upgrade. They have a very helpful migration team to smooth the move.

"On the down side, in November, my bill unexpectedly jumped $40. Scanning through it, my base cell service went from $89.99 to $129.99. A phone call to Qwest Customer Service revealed that, as a prelude to the switch, Qwest canceled all the grandfathered cell contracts. My plan allowed me to have five phones, which I needed at one time. I'm now only using three. Had I known about the increase, I would have switched to a plan with fewer minutes for the same $89.99."

Mark quickly called to switch to a less expensive plan. But he was still left footing the bill he'd already received. He felt that the company should credit him for the time he spent paying for the unannounced price hike. He's a good customer who spends more than $300 a month and who feels a price hike should come in his bill and be clearly marked. And it's not as if anyone was talking about a lot of money. Sure, it was enough cash to make him angry but not so much that a reasonable company should consider losing a good customer for it. In all, getting his money back was a reasonable request.

But Qwest "steadfastly refused to credit us for the price hike," he says. "Even on threat of moving to Cox Communications for voice, data, and cable, they wouldn't budge. I called Qwest several times and each time I mentioned how upset I was at not being properly notified of the price increase. Each time the outcome was the same -- no credit."

But even as his patience was flagging, Mark made one more call. "Brock, the last Qwest rep I spoke with," he says, "came up with a creative solution. He couldn't credit the extra we paid for the cellular for about five weeks, but he could offer us a break on our landlines -- a break that more than offset the extra we had paid for cellular. He also noted that we were qualified for some additional Qwest bundle discounts. Brock made a $3,600/year Qwest customer happy for about $75 and some innovative thinking. Too bad the previous three reps weren't looking at the big picture, but all's well that ends well."

A lot of people would have simply given up, telling themselves that the money is not worth the suffering and that consumers are helpless against big companies. But Mark was persistent, steadfast, and sure about what felt right to him. He finally got someone who agreed with him and had the power and skills to help solve his problem.

This is a story I hear over and over.

Of course, if you don't like the game -- and that sweet feeling of winning that belongs to Mark now -- you could just write to me. This is a game I love to play.

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